What to know for the NFL's too-close-to-call conference title games

CBC Sports' daily newsletter previews the pair of highly competitive matchups that will decide who squares off in Super Bowl LVII.

Super Bowl LVII spots are very much up for grabs

A football quarterback scrambles during game play.
The health of Patrick Mahomes' right ankle will be a big factor in deciding which team represents the AFC in the Super Bowl. (David Eulitt/Getty Images)

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A pair of highly competitive matchups on Sunday will decide the combatants for Super Bowl LVII. Here's a little to know about the NFL's conference title games:

NFC: San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles, 3 p.m. ET

Not since Tom Brady's arrival more than two decades ago has the NFL seen a rags-to-riches story quite like Brock Purdy's. The very last player picked in the 2022 draft (262nd overall) was indeed Mr. Irrelevant until season-ending injuries to San Francisco's top two quarterbacks pressed him into action in early December. All Purdy has done is go 8-0, including two playoff wins, while impressing everyone with his mobility, intelligence and fearlessness. After last weekend's 19-12 victory over Dallas, the Niners have won 12 in a row.

Purdy deserves all the praise he's getting, but he struck gold by landing with the 49ers. Their offence is loaded with some of the most skilled players in football, including running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. The defence, anchored by star pass rusher Nick Bosa and do-everything linebacker Fred Warner, is the best and most intimidating in the sport.

Intimidation is also a calling card of Philadelphia's. The Eagles went 14-3 this season (tied with Kansas City for best in the league) on the strength of the NFL's top rushing attack. That starts with Jalen Hurts, one of the best running quarterbacks in the game and an improved passer after Philly acquired powerful star receiver A.J. Brown to pair with shifty DeVonta Smith. The Eagles also have one of the NFL's stingiest defences, which was the best in the league this season against the pass, and maybe the most hostile home crowd in football.

Can Purdy overcome all of that in what will be by far the toughest road assignment of his young career? The betting markets suggest probably not, with Philly holding firm as a 2.5-point favourite throughout the week.

AFC: Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City, 6:30 p.m. ET

The biggest x-factor in either of Sunday's games is Patrick Mahomes' health. The likely 2022 NFL MVP hobbled through the second half of last week's win over Jacksonville with a high ankle sprain and has never wavered on his insistence that he'll play this Sunday. Question is, how effective will he be with an injury that typically keeps football players out for multiple weeks? Mahomes is the most creative quarterback in the league, a passing savant whose superpower is improvising plays on the move when his protection breaks down. But this ankle injury could be his kryptonite.

Even with a healthy Mahomes, top-seeded Kansas City would have its hands full against a Bengals team that seems to have its number. Cincinnati came back from a 21-3 deficit to shock K.C. in last year's AFC championship game and won both of their regular-season meetings in the last two seasons.

Bengals third-year quarterback Joe Burrow seems to get better every week, and he's elevated by one of the most dangerous wide-receiver tandems in football in Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Cincy's tough defence shut down the high-flying Bills last week in a 27-10 upset that ran the Bengals' winning streak to 10 games. The defending AFC champs haven't lost since Halloween and haven't lost with Chase in the lineup since Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.

Can a wounded Mahomes stop the Bengals from reaching their second straight Super Bowl? The betting markets are optimistic, moving K.C. from a slight underdog to a slight favourite after Mahomes showed he was able to practice.

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